In this Illustrator tutorial, Ben O'Brien looks at how to get started with the Puppet Warp tool and how to use its various functions. He’ll show you how to rig characters in preparation for posing using the tool, how to use it to adjust graphic lines or objects, and how to use your skills to bring personality to a character.
Note that while the focus of this tutorial will be on characters, the Puppet Warp tool can be used to play with, distort or correct anything from typography to abstract art.
The process required for the Puppet Warp tool is fairly simple, but with great ideas it can be applied to your work in an array of ways, no matter of your illustration style or the subject matter of your work.
The artwork Ben created to showcase the techniques detailed in this tutorial was for our in-depth story on how freelance illustrators cope with mental illness.
When trying out new tools, it is often best to start with a composition with a simple set of elements, so you can concentrate on getting to know the technical features.
For the illustration you saw in the introduction of this tutorial, I am working with one of a small group of people – each with their own personalities but remaining a simple form. Rather than creating each individually, I’m going to build a single base character, prepare it for posing, and then duplicate and modify this to create the individuals.
First, create a vector character using the Pen or Pencil tools (or geometric shapes). It can often simplify things by using a symmetrical character.
In this case I have arms and legs as separate objects. The T-shirt body is split into torso and sleeves.
Here I’m working with an artwork comprised of solid objects, but the Puppet Warp tool can be applied to linework too. I’ll show how to do that in a later step, when we will look at using a character that is one silhouetted shape.
Highlight every body part you want to work with using the Selection tool and click on the Puppet Warp tool. This new tool has a thumb-tack icon, it may be grouped with the Free Transform tool in the Toolbar.
You will see that Illustrator places a triangulate pattern over your artwork. This mesh is not essential and can be removed by unchecking the ‘Show Mesh’ box at the top of the screen.
Simply click where a joint would be in the human body, for example on the elbow. You will see the tool places a circle at that point with a dotted outer ring.
Place or ‘rig’ more points using the pins at each possible joint.
Ensure each limb or body part is rooted by placing a pin at both ends. Arms should have a pin at the shoulders and legs should have a pin at the hips. This is because that if you only pinned the middle of a body part, it would end up rotating around that pin when you tried to warp it.
With your character rigged, now try using the tool to click and drag one of your pins, you’ll see how it moves the shape, keeping any other pins on the same shape stationary. You’ll see how you can adjust single shape depending where you drag each of it’s pins.
Note: When creating a pose, it’s always worth considering how we move, bend or twist. Look to how real people stand – take photos of yourself, friends or family in that pose to see how they ‘hang’.
Each pin has an outer ring around it, if you place the Puppet Warp tool cursor within that ring (but not on the central pin) you can then rotate the pin, allowing you to create all manner of warping effects with the shapes (such as this Mr Tickle-like arm here)
When warping a character into a pose, if one part of the body isn’t looking correct, add another pin and drag that into the right position for the body shape as a whole.
Here I’ve softened the curve of the stomach for a more natural shape.
At this point I will point out that the Puppet Warp tool is great for small, subtle movements, and can suit some illustration styles incredibly well – but it won’t magically alter any character into any position, if you illustrate a standing character, don’t expect to be able to make it run.
For a looser, more cartoony warping effect, start over but make your character into one single shape. You can do this by highlighting your original character in it’s multiple parts and using the ‘Unite’ button in the Pathfinder panel (Window > Pathfinder).
Again, rig your character using the Puppet Warp pins at all the main joints. If you click and drag the pins now, you’ll see the whole character starts to bend and adjust more, potentially creating some dynamic, fluid poses. This is great for cartoon squash and stretch effects.
When portraying a character always consider mood and personality. This character here is feeling shy and lacking confidence, so I’ve rigged his arms to go behind his back and then warped his whole body to lean to one side as if hiding away.
An alternative to loose-limbed characters is to work with characters that fit into one more solid shape.
This dog is one shape with the eyes on a separate layer. I have rigged the body with just 5 pins and will move the eyes separately to ensure they remain perfect circles.
As you can see here a few simple warps can add a lot of personality and interest to such a simple character. Play with every part of the character, even moving a foot backwards or forwards can change the position enough to be telling a different story.
Try applying different positions to the same physical figure, with only a few simple tweaks – and perhaps changing their clothing or hair – you can evoke a multitude of personalities, character traits and attitudes.
As the Puppet Warp tool does simply that – it warps – you may find some shapes or details are too complex to be moved in this way. In this case you should add hands, clothing and other details separately without warping to ensure they are always correct.
You can see here the final results of my illustration, portraying five different figures all facing different mental health issues. Each character started with the same physical form, was posed and then had some customised assets added to give each their own personality and style.